Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists

The number of tiny plastic pieces polluting the world’s oceans is vastly greater than thought, new research indicates.

The work reveals the highest microplastic pollution yet discovered anywhere in the world in a river near Manchester in the UK. It also shows that the major floods in the area in 2015-16 flushed more than 40bn pieces of microplastic into the sea.

The surge of such a vast amount of microplastic from one small river catchment in a single event led the scientists to conclude that the current estimate for the number of particles in the ocean – five trillion – is a major underestimate.

Microplastics include broken-down plastic waste, synthetic fibres and beads found in personal hygiene products. They are known to harm marine life, which mistake them for food, and can be consumed by humans too via seafood, tap water or other food. The risk to people is still not known, but there are concerns that microplastics can accumulate toxic chemicals and that the tiniest could enter the bloodstream.

“Given their pervasive and persistent nature, microplastics have become a global environmental concern and a potential risk to human populations,” said Rachel Hurley from the University of Manchester and colleagues in their report, published in Nature Geoscience.

Microplastics map

The team analysed sediments in 10 rivers within about 20km of Manchester and all but one of the 40 sites showed microplastic contamination. After the winter floods of 2015-16, they took new samples and found that 70% of the microplastics had been swept away, a total of 43bn particles or 850kg. Of those, about 17bn would float in sea water.

“This is a small to medium sized catchment in the north of England, it is one flood event, it is just one year – there is no way that [5tn global] estimate is right,” said Hurley. The researchers said total microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans “must be far higher”.

The worst hotspot, on the River Tame, had more than 500,000 microplastic particles per square metre in the top 10cm of river bed. This is the worst concentration ever reported and 50% more than the previous record, in beach sediments from South Korea. But Hurley said there may well be worse places yet to me measured: “We don’t have much data for huge rivers in the global south, which may have so much more plastic in.”

“There is so much effort going into the marine side of the microplastic problem but this research shows it is really originating upstream in river catchments,” she said. “We need to control those sources to even begin to clean up the oceans.”

About a third of microplastics found by the team before the flooding were microbeads, tiny spheres used in personal care products and banned in the UK in January. This high proportion surprised the scientists, who said the beads may well also derive from industrial uses, which are not covered by the ban.

Erik van Sebille, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and and not part of the research team, said the work does support a much higher estimate of global microplastic pollution in the oceans: “I’m not surprised by that conclusion. In 2015, we found that 99% of all plastic in the ocean is not on the surface anymore. The problem is that we don’t know where that 99% of plastic is. Is it on beaches, the seafloor, in marine organisms? Before we can start thinking about cleaning up the plastic, we’ll first need to know how it’s distributed.”

Anne Marie Mahon, at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland and also not part of the research team, said: “I am actually glad to see the estimate going up a bit, just to show there is this huge contribution coming from the freshwater system.” However, she cautioned that not all the microplastics shown in the study to be flushed out by the floods necessarily entered the sea – some may have been washed over the floodplain instead.

“It is very difficult to tell how this plastic may be affecting us,” Hurley said. “But they definitely do enter our bodies. The missing gap is we need to know if we are getting contaminants inside us as a result of plastic particles.”

The smallest particles that could be analysed in the new research were 63 microns, roughly the width of a human hair. But much smaller plastic particles will exist, and Hurley said: “It is the really small stuff we get worried about, as they can get through the membranes in the gut and in the bloodstream – that is the real fear.”

We need to use gene editing wisely but also embrace its vast potential | Mary Warnock

The Royal Society has recently published the results of an extensive survey of the attitudes of the general public to genetic modification. This sent my mind back to 1990, when the human fertilisation and embryology bill was going through parliament.

The emphasis, at least in the House of Lords, where the bill started, very soon switched from remedies for infertility to the new concept of eliminating some heritable diseases. IVF could be used to select embryos in the laboratory that did not carry the disease and implant one or two of those in the mother’s uterus. At the time, it was also speculated that one day it might be possible to eliminate a faulty gene from a live embryo after a pregnancy had been established, rather than at the pre-implantation stage.

I remember being astonished by how little this had to do with infertility, which was, after all, in the title of the bill, and what the committee I chaired had been set up to consider.

It came about almost entirely because of the enthusiasm of a then newly appointed crossbencher, Lord Walton of Detchant, who was a neurologist especially concerned with the condition of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a heritable disease for which there was no cure. The bill became law as much because of his persuasiveness in the matter of genetic modification as because of the help it would afford to those suffering from infertility.

But the procedures that John Walton foresaw took very much longer to come into practice than he had expected and we are now again considering the issues that arise from genetic modification in humans, though this time not only embryonic humans.

The Royal Society survey is an extremely careful investigation of the views of three panels of “ordinary” people, based in London, Norwich and Edinburgh, concerned, respectively, with genetic modification of humans, plants and animals other than human.

The survey was carried out over a considerable period and with a great deal of internal communication. It is not surprising, therefore, that people changed their minds, or modified their opinions, during the course of the inquiry. But one thing that emerges most clearly from the report is the common thirst for more knowledge. Again and again, participants complained that they were inhibited from expressing an opinion about new developments in the field by their ignorance of which therapies were currently being used and which were in the pipeline.

The motivating force behind the survey was the thought that the new possibilities of curing disease by genetic modification could be of benefit to large numbers of people, many of whom suffered from conditions hitherto untreatable. It is therefore essential that these new possibilities should be widely understood and that there should be no room for suspicion that research is being carried out behind closed doors or that there is help available to which no one has access.

Among the London group, those concerned with the application of the new techniques to humans, a surprising number held the view that the benefit of the techniques lay in the matter of equality: everyone, whatever their disease or disability, would have a chance to benefit from the new therapies. But this would depend on the cost of genetic treatment, which might well be prohibitive for a cash-strapped NHS. Nearly everyone agreed that the new techniques should not be used frivolously, that is, they should be used for the treatment of serious diseases, especially heritable diseases, not for aesthetic reasons, such as the production of “designer babies”.

This moral imperative immediately introduces the idea that the use of genetic modification requires regulation and this is something that was acknowledged by almost all the participants in the survey, whether they were concerned with crops, animals or humans.

Wild rice is grown in a new greenhouse at the University of Arizona



Wild rice is grown in a greenhouse at the University of Arizona, where scientists have fully mapped and sequenced the genetic code of the rice plant. Photograph: Gary Williams/Getty Images

Many of those surveyed expressed the hope that such regulation should be global; however, that seems to me pure fantasy. Think of the difficulties in establishing global agreement on the management of pollution. In this case, we must simply try to regulate for ourselves and hope that, if we can get it right, others will follow.

There was one concern of the report with which I had little sympathy and that was the matter of consent. A number of people expressed anxiety that, if a child were genetically modified so that that child, and their children, would no longer suffer from an inherited disease, they would have had this done to them, as well as to future generations, without their consent.

Obviously that is true. And obviously in many cases it is desirable that consent be assured before action is taken that involves someone else. But if you are being rescued from an intolerable situation, surely your consent can be taken for granted. If, in order to prevent my being burned to death in a house fire you fling me over your shoulder and run – you don’t need to stop to ask my consent. So, if you can act so as to spare a child, and future generations of children, the sufferings of disability, surely you do not need their consent to take the necessary actions. Sometimes, I feel that people engaged in these discussions underestimate the awfulness of having a profoundly disabled child.

And this leads to my next point: there were those whose response to the inquiry was to suggest that it was wrong to try to find ways to remove or alleviate the sufferings of those who have genetically determined disabilities. To suggest that one might hope to eliminate disability was the same as to hope to eliminate disabled people. And this was discrimination.

But this argument, though I have frequently encountered it, often put forward with passion, seems to me very weak. To say of someone that his life would be better if he were not disabled is not the same as to say that it would be better if he did not exist. But, on the whole, there was little of this in the findings of the survey. It has been a useful and enlightening exercise.

Mary Warnock is a moral philosopher and life peer

Town where nobody’s home: Fukushima communities struggling to survive

Okuma, on Japan’s east coast, used to host a busy community of 10,500 people. But today the houses stand empty.

The town is empty because it is one of the closest to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and – seven years after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a triple meltdown – it remains under evacuation orders with decontamination still not finished.

However, Okuma is not totally deserted. It is patrolled by Jijii Butai, or The Old Man squad. A group of hardy retirees who keep watch over their beloved former home.

Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, stands a few metres from a pick-up truck and recalls how he and his friends responded when they spotted a strange person on their streets.

“There was a suspicious person who was walking around the town one day and we noticed this suspicious person and we picked this person up and we put him on the truck,” says the mild-mannered former town hall worker.

“If we notice any suspicious actions or people of course we alert [the authorities].”

Yokoyama is one of six retirees who formed the squad five years ago, partly to allay the concerns of homeowners about potential break-ins and fires. He says the squad members are less worried about radiation exposure than the younger generation because “we don’t have many years ahead of us anyway”.

Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, and other town hall retirees formed the ‘Old Man Squad’ to patrol the evacuated Okuma town and give homeowners peace of mind.



Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, and other town hall retirees formed the ‘Old Man Squad’ to patrol the evacuated Okuma town and give homeowners peace of mind. Photograph: Daniel Hurst for the Guardian

Almost every day, they travel from their new homes one to two hours away and conduct volunteer patrols. Despite the early focus on suspicious activity, they are now more likely to be occupied by keeping the town clean and tidy, looking out for damage caused by wild boars, picking up any rubbish that may have accumulated in the waterways, and clearing away fallen trees.

“We belong to the same generation, we are around the same age, so we can understand each other pretty well in terms of sharing the same goal and also the objective and hope for this town,” Yokoyama says of the bond they’ve formed.

The long road home

The streets are not as quiet as they used to be. In some parts of the town, residents are now allowed to enter to periodically check up on their homes – but they are not allowed to stay overnight.

It’s clear, however, that it will be a long and difficult process to entice them back given they have set up new lives elsewhere.

Even Shuyo Shiga, the leader of the Okuma town recovery project, expects that the rest of his family will stay away once the situation has been put back to relative normality.

For starters, it won’t be a case of simply moving back into their old home: Shiga’s property is part of a parcel of land earmarked to become an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. In addition, he says one of his three children suffered great trauma from seeing their neighbours “swallowed up by the tsunami” as they tried to flee the powerful waters. They are now in their 20s.

“I think a person that has that kind of difficult experience, it’s very hard for them to come back to Okuma,” Shiga says.

“The children said they will not return … and my wife is talking about not returning, so I suppose it will be for me to return to Okuma as a single person – not with my family, not with my wife.”

The town is starting its recovery with modest ambitions. Residential homes are being built for 50 households – the number that indicated on a questionnaire that they wanted to come back. Eventually, says Shiga, the town plans to build 100 detached houses. But this is just a fraction of the pre-disaster population. It tends to be older residents who wish to return, he adds.

A radiation reading in front of an old school building in the portside area of Ukedo near Namie. This area was hit badly by the tsunami in 2011.



A radiation reading in front of an old school building in the portside area of Ukedo near Namie. This area was hit badly by the tsunami in 2011. Photograph: Daniel Hurst for the Guardian

Elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture, the town of Namie is a stark example of the challenges of getting a former evacuation zone back on track. Authorities lifted the evacuation orders there on 31 March 2017, except for some districts. Compared with Namie’s previous population of 21,000, so far just 490 people have returned.

Yohei Aota, an official with the Namie town government, reveals the figures as he looks out over the portside district of Ukedo – a low-lying area that was swamped by a 15.5-metre wave. His home was one of those destroyed.

Painful reminders

“Of course looking at the scenery reminds me of what happened,” he says from an elevated vantage point where the local elementary students successfully escaped the reach of the tsunami. Now the school building stands empty and most of the homes in the area have been demolished.

“There used to about 1,900 people living here [in Namie’s Ukedo district] but 182 people died unfortunately from the tsunami,” Aota says. “And actually there are still 30 missing persons – no remains, no belongings have been found of these 30 missing persons.”

Fukushima authorities area anxious to say that a lot of progress has been made since May 2012 when the number of evacuees from across the entire prefecture peaked at 164,865. That figure has fallen below 50,000. But people are not exactly rushing back.

Rieko Watanabe, 65, who evacuated from Namie to Minamisoma, says everyone has their own reasons for why they have not returned. She commutes from Minamisoma to run her business called Grandma Kitchen which serves meals and bento boxes to residents and workers.

Watanabe notes that the people in Namie are shy about their plans for the future. “But they often look around and if they notice a friend or an acquaintance or a neighbour returning they might say, ‘oh maybe it’s time for me to return as well and maybe I can do something’. We are praying every day and we are working hard every day so that this trend of people coming back to Namie would be strengthened and can be maintained.”

She adds with a determined smile: “Never give up.”

Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Steve Ludwin with a snake round his head






What a charmer: Steve Ludwin with a friendly Honduran milk snake.
Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.

Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.

“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.

He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.

The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London



‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”

After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.

I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.

Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’s Temptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.

On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.

When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’: when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s



‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’:
when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.

When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.

When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.

As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.

Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper.



Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”

The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”

When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”

The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”

They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin.



‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”

He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.

“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”

The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”

His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the National History Museum until 13 May. See Steve behind the scenes at nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-venom.

Strays: A Homeless Man, a Lost Cat and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins is being republished by Simon & Schuster

SkyPixel aerial photography contest winners 2017 – in pictures

SkyPixel has announced the winners of its annual aerial photography competition and the results are breathtaking. The contest, which ran from October to December, received more than 44,000 submissions from people in 141 countries, across the categories of landscape, portrait and story. The grand prize was awarded to Florian Ledoux, a photographer from France, who captured a polar bear jumping across ice floes in Nunavut, Canada

Blue Planet gives super-rich their new toys – submersibles

World’s ultra-rich are buying subs for up to £30m to indulge in deep ocean exploring

Triton submersibles






Doing a David Attenborough – Triton submersibles in deep waters off Lyford Cay, Bahamas.
Photograph: Nick Verola

A new toy has surfaced on the must-have list of leisure options for the world’s billionaire class: private submersibles they can use to explore the oceans – or even use as James Bond-style means of escape if their superyacht should come under attack.

The global super-rich last year bought about 30 submersibles – with price tags of up to £30m – according to manufacturer Triton. These private submarines are known as submersibles because they are not independently powered, instead relying on batteries that have to be recharged by a support vessel.

Louise Harrison, Triton’s European sales director, said in recent months the BBC’s Blue Planet series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, had led to a “huge spike” in demand from wealthy buyers wanting to explore the deep and get up close to coral reefs, stingrays and whales.

There is a growing number of super-rich, she said, who want more than to merely luxuriate in their good fortune. “The super-rich aren’t happy to sit on the back of their yachts with a G&T anymore. The modern ones and the young ones want to go to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands,” she said. “They want to see what’s beneath the surface as well as what’s on top. They have seen Blue Planet, and they want to get down there and see it for themselves.”

Harrison told hundreds of delegates attending the Superyacht Investor conference in London this week that submersible manufacturers had their best year in 2017, as there has been “definitive change in direction among owners to use their superyachts for new experiences”.

“The industry sold 25-30 submersibles last year,” she said. “It may not sound like a lot but they are priced at a minimum of £1m and up to £30m. It is a lot of money.”

The Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the US hedge fund manger Ray Dalio are among billionaires who have already splashed out on underwater vessels. Indeed, one may not be enough: Dalio said he was so “wild about ocean exploration” that he bought two submersibles, which were used in the filming of the second series of Blue Planet.

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“The underwater world is much larger than the above-water world, has more unidentified species than the above-water world, is essential to our wellbeing, is incredibly interesting and valuable, and is mostly unexplored,” said Dalio, the world’s 90th richest person with a $14.6bn (£10.3bn) fortune.

“For those reasons, and for the thrill of it, I am wild about ocean exploration. I explore the ocean personally while tagging along with great ocean scientists and explorers, and I financially support ocean exploration that goes on way beyond me – including sharing these thrills with the public through various media outlets and museum exhibits.”

Dalio’s submersibles – named Nadir and Deep Rover – are based on his $50m expedition-focused superyacht, Alucia.

The Nadir is a Triton 3300/3 model capable of diving to a depth of 1,000 metres with a pilot and two passengers on board and sells for about $3m depending on fixtures and fittings. “Yes, it’s a lot of money,” Harrison said. “But do you want to go diving in a cheap submersible?”

Harrison said the growth in submersibles had been driven by a rapid improvement in acrylic technology, which means they can be fitted with large clear bubble domes, giving a 360-degree views of the ocean. “When you’re underwater the acrylic sort of disappears and you feel like you are actually in the ocean. It’s a bit dreamlike when you’re down there,” she said. “The acrylic is the expensive bit, as the technology has only recently got so advanced that you can go that deep. It is very, very expensive stuff – you don’t want to scratch it.”

Harrison said most customers say they are interested in buying submersibles for exploration, but some have also inquired about using them as “panic rooms or escape vessels”.

The submersible ‘Nadir’ used by Blue Planet II team to film the Deep episode. It was one of many subs used to film the series



The submersible ‘Nadir’ used by Blue Planet II team to film the Deep episode. It was one of many subs used to film the series. Photograph: Luis Lamar

Triton’s biggest competitor, Holland’s U-Boat Worx, has designed an ultra-lightweight submersible model specifically for superyachts. Its Super Yacht Sub Three is piloted from the rear so the passengers can get the best view of the ocean from the front of the bubble dome. The company said: “This submarine is aimed at the yacht market … [it] delivers both performance and luxury.”

Triton, which is based in Florida, has partnered with British luxury car group Aston Martin to work on a new $4m three-man submersible codenamed Project Neptune. The subs, which are expected to hit the market later this year, will dive to 1,650ft and have a top speed of 3.5 miles an hour.

Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief creative officer, said the company had decided to expand into submersibles following interest expressed by its richest customers. “Those superyacht people, what they want to experience is changing,” he said. “It’s no longer about just having a launch or having your tender. It’s about having some other way of entertaining your guests.”

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Billions of pieces of plastic on coral reefs send disease soaring, research reveals

A major new study estimates 11bn pieces of plastic contaminate vital reefs and result in infections: ‘It’s like getting gangrene,’ scientists warn

Spawning coral wrapped in plastic.






Spawning coral wrapped in plastic.
Photograph: Lalita Putchim/Science

Billions of pieces of plastic pollution are snagged on coral reefs, sending disease rates soaring, new research has revealed. The discovery compounds the damage being done to a vital habitat that already faces an existential threat from the warming caused by climate change.

Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, home to half the world’s reefs, and found 89% of those fouled by plastic were suffering disease. On plastic-free reefs, only 4% of the corals were diseased.

The work is highly significant because it is the first to examine the impact of plastic on disease in any marine organism and also the first to produce a large-scale estimate of how much plastic pollutes the sea floor. Coral reefs in the region are contaminated with 11bn pieces of plastic, the research indicates.

At least 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year and it now pollutes even the remotest corners. Microplastics, formed when plastics are broken up, can be mistaken for food by sea creatures and early studies have shown this causes harm.

The scientists who conducted the new study did not set out to research plastic but were confronted by it across the regions they surveyed. The correlation between plastic pollution and high rates of disease was very striking and the researchers think sharp plastic fragments cut the coral organisms, while plastic fabrics smother them and block out light and oxygen.

“Corals are animals just like me and you – they become wounded and then infected,” said Joleah Lamb, at Cornell University in the US, who led the new research, published in the journal Science. “Plastics are ideal vessels for microorganisms, with pits and pores, so it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife.”

During dives Lamb found objects from plastic chairs to baby nappies to a Nike-branded quick-dry towel: “I saw a big white Nike swoosh, right there where the disease was and thought, ‘oh gosh, this is not great’.”

She said that once a coral is infected, disease usually spreads across the colony: “It’s like getting gangrene on your toe and watching it eat your body. There’s not much you can do to stop it. If a piece of plastic happens to entangle on a coral it has a pretty bad chance of survival.”

Coral reefs are not only a wonder of the natural world, home to myriad spectacular creatures, but they are also vital for at least 275 million people who rely on them for food, coastal protection from storms and income from tourism. The scientists said it is “critical” to cut plastic pollution.

Logos from manufacturing giants, like Nike, can be found along the bottom of the ocean.



Logos from manufacturing giants, like Nike, can be found along the bottom of the ocean. Photograph: Dr. Joleah Lamb/Science

The international team of scientists examined corals spread across 159 reefs off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014. They found plastic snared on a third of the individual specimens, with the problem much worse on Indonesian reefs than on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where plastic waste is better managed.

The diseases particularly associated with plastic were skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease. Corals with complex branching structures, which provide crucial “nursery” niches for young fish, were eight times more likely to have entangled plastic.

The scientists were only able to record items of plastic more than 5cm in length, so did not assess the impact of microplastics. Lamb also warned: “There are a lot of other pollutants [such as toxic chemicals] in the water that are probably just as bad as plastic – you just can’t see them.”

Prof Terry Hughes, at James Cook University in Australia and not part of the study team, said: “I’d never thought of bits of plastic as a vector of disease spread from the slime that coats them, but the study shows convincingly that corals entangled in plastic are 20 times more likely to be infected.”

Earlier in January, a team led by Hughes published work warning that repeated bleaching events are now “the new normal” due to global warming and pose a fatal threat to reefs. “The new study shows that remote reefs have much less plastic and disease. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide from global warming, and even the most pristine reefs are vulnerable to bleaching,” he said.

Debris lining the beach in Sulawesi, Indonesia.



Debris lining the beach in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photograph: Dr. Joleah Lamb/Science

Prof Alasdair Edwards, at Newcastle University, UK, and also not involved in the new study, said the combined impact of plastic-related disease and climate change could be very serious: “Warming oceans are still the major threat to corals, but this paper shows that in areas more affected by humans, as exemplified by plastic debris, the chance of corals recovering from mass-bleaching and mortality events may be severely compromised. Corals need all the help they can get.”

Lamb said the one hopeful aspect of the plastic pollution problem was that people can take direct action: “The take-home message for individuals is to be more considered about the amount of single-use plastics you are using and think about where your plastic goes. These little things do matter.”

The researchers also estimated that the plastic pollution tarnishing coral reefs in Asia-Pacific will soar by 40% by 2025 to 16bn pieces, unless action is taken. The true number is likely to be higher, as China and Singapore were not included in the analysis.